The goal of the DWCC’s Disrupt! Wine Talks is to present new ideas in a high-energy format: one word, one speaker with a microphone and eight minutes. The sessions are a variation on the Ignite format, in which each slide is displayed for 20 seconds, and slides automatically advance, whether the presenter is ready or not.
To make things even more challenging, all six speakers were given the same word, “BLEND” (the conference theme) from which to build an inspirational talk from their perspective or area of expertise.
Our task was to change people’s thinking. We were asked to push our captive audience to look at things from a new angle – to leave them asking questions, challenging assumptions and inspiring new ideas.
One speaker, Richard Heming, MW, encouraged the wine community to “lighten up” and blend wine with humor. Simon Woolf shouted that “blending in is for losers!” and dared attendees to buck the norm. My call to action was to challenge deep-seeded biases around industry roles and encourage us all to find new ways of blending profession with passion.
Below is an abbreviated version of my presentation.
I called Ryan Opaz [co-founder of DWCC] up a few weeks ago and asked, “Why did you ask me to speak again? What is it you think I can offer that’s of use to anyone in this audience?”
He told me he thought that I could talk about how I blend my personal enjoyment of wine with wine as my profession, even though (and I kid you not) I am relegated to the seventh circle of hell because I’m a “PR person” whose sole purpose on earth is to annoy people. And it got me thinking. I am a blend of many things. I am not just one thing. And I suspect many of us in this room have similar stories.
My job is to break down barriers, bring people closer to wine and to each other through stories and experiences. We are all here because we are communicators in some form or fashion. So I’ll share a little bit about my experience blending in a professional sense and why I believe it is an element vital to each and every one of our success.
This is my fifth DWCC. I remember vividly my first conference. I arrived, by myself, in Italy. I spoke no Italian.
I knew no one except Ryan, Robert and Gabriella [conference co-founders], and we all know how much time they have for chit chat at these events. And on top of that, I had signed up my company to sponsor a small table at one of the walk-around tastings.
So I was an outsider. I wasn’t part of the winery or writer crowd. I felt like I was crashing someone else’s party, someone else’s community. How did I move beyond this? It’s not a real revelation. In fact, it’s not even that creative. I showed up to the first event, the bring your own beverage (BYOB) gathering, and opened myself up to the experience.
I started by myself in the back corner of the ballroom. I quickly realized no one was going to come to me, no matter how fabulous my bottle of wine was. So I started walking up to people. “Hi, I’m Katie. I’m new.
“Would you like to try my wine? I work for the company that makes the cork. I just moved to New York and it was the first bottle I bought and I thought it was a sign. And I’d never had a grape called Moschifelero before. So that’s why I brought it.”
Some were biased because I was representing a company. But the way I presented myself wasn’t as a corporate hack. I expressed it as a blend of of my professional and personal experience.
Reversing the tables, I’ve struggled with my own biases and skepticism around authenticity.
I have to admit, I was pretty anti-California wine for a while. My first wine experiences were with California wines. But when I moved to New York, a whole new universe was opened to me. And those California wines that shepherded me into the wine world started feeling like over-ripe, over-wraught, over-oaked, high-alcohol fruit bombs next to those racy Moschifeleros. So I was closed. But later I met people who were doing interesting things on small and large scales. I needed to reconfigure my concept of California wines. Not all California wines are monolithic.
There are so many more preconceptions we need to overcome and open our minds to. Bruce Schoenfeld wrote about a similar experience with Australian wines. He also followed a path of rediscovery, surprise and delight. He shared his own journey to encourage us to reassess our biases about Australian wine.
We have so much collective expertise in this room. We possess wine knowledge, writing, and communications skills. We draw on that expertise to guide and counsel the audiences we serve. But this can also create invisible barriers and distance from others. Separating ourselves from others is limiting.
I find that by remaining open to the new, I can preemptively circumvent my bias. I try to enter each experience mindful that every person is going to bring something to the table. I ask myself, “what can I learn?”
It’s funny. I told someone recently that the wine community is now a place I really feel at home, accepted. It has evolved into a much different place than my first experience. I love this community because it is a constant intellectual and sensory challenge.
There are interesting people who are in this business not for the money or the fame. But for love. And as critical and sometimes cynical as we can all be, there is a certain magic about wine. It is an intricate mix of weather, dirt, personalities, and choices that blend to create moments in time. Each experience is different, because of things like when we decide to open a bottle, or through pairing and sharing contexts.
We’re all going to have a soft spot in our hearts – for the rest of our lives – for Bulgarian wine. Because we’re here. We’ve already met amazing people. And we will become part of the journey of this wine region.
So here’s my call to action: embrace the blend. There are facts. There are emotions. They mingle together to create our realities. We’re all amalgamations of many things.
I’m a passionate wine drinker.
Sometimes one of those elements is a stronger part of the mix. But a good blend in any context is made better, amplified by each of the elements that are contributed. We are more than the sum of those parts.
In order to survive as communicators, writers, and as an industry, we have to think of new and creative ways of doing things differently. We have to reimagine ourselves, the way we look at things, and what we do.
Going back to my first DWCC experience – I didn’t like feeling like an outsider. So I evolved. I brought myself closer to the experience of others at the conference. I realized that I could be more than one thing. So I helped with harvests. I wrote and published articles. I’ve worked for a packaging company, a regional wine body. I buy and drink more wine than I care to admit in this public forum. And I advocate for wines and stories that I find interesting with no vested interest other than to share an experience I think people could enjoy.
We can be more than one thing. I don’t believe any of us has to give something up to grow, expand and extend into something else. I believe we can be objective contributors even though everybody has a bias – through our palate, background, and opinions. That’s what makes us human, not robots.
We must add value to the story that we are sharing, whether it’s as a producer, region, product manufacturer, or on behalf of the consumer. Otherwise, why are we here? What are we doing with our time, our lives?
Blending these components is a vital to the success of the wine world we live in. It is a grand, beautiful, complicated and diverse ecosystem that delivers on a higher calling that I think most of us in this room serve, which is to connect with the world around us – and each other – through the story, experience and wonder of wine.